The January 25 Palestinian elections not only delivered a landslide victory to the Islamic resistance group Hamas, it also resulted in a record number of women being elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council.
Thirteen women — six of those from Hamas — were elected under the new quota system, which was introduced in 2005 to ensure that women make up 20% of the PLC. Five women were elected in the first PLC elections in 1996.
In the past year, the number of women standing for election in Palestine has increased markedly. In the December 2004 municipal elections, 139 of the 887 candidates vying for 306 seats were women. Under the quota system established for local elections, two seats per council were set aside for women. Of the 52 women elected, five received enough votes to be awarded a seat regardless of the quota. In May 2006, 163 women were elected in the second round of municipal elections, 103 without the assistance of the women's quota.
Women's participation in Palestinian political and economic life is not new. Palestinian women living under the illegal Israeli military occupation bear the brunt of Israel's brutal policies. Nearly every Palestinian family has lost a son, brother or father — either imprisoned in Israeli jails or killed by the Israeli military — increasing the burden on women. Israel's policies of house demolition, movement restrictions, checkpoints and road closures have also impacted heavily on women. According to a UN report released in 2003, the living conditions of Palestinian women seriously declined in 2002 and 2003 due to Israeli military closures.
In 1987, prior to the first intifada, women led a boycott campaign against Israeli products in the occupied Palestinian territories. During the first intifada, women led the campaign to reopen schools forcibly closed by the Israeli military. According to Hanadi Loubani, a founding member of British Women for Palestine, Palestinian women "established underground community schools that their children could attend" and were very active in direct street activism against the occupation forces.
Huda Neem, a social worker and one of the six Hamas women elected in January, says Palestinian women are closer to the problems of society and this is why they are looking to Hamas for a solution. "They are the ones who feel the unemployment. They are the ones who have to look after the children when their husbands are in prison", Neem said in an interview with the British Guardian on February 18.
Hamas, which was elected on a platform of improving social services and opposing corruption, has integrated the struggle against the occupation with provision of economic and social services to the Palestinian people. Since 1987, Hamas has sought to provide health and medical services, child care and kindergartens.
Unlike the Taliban in Afghanistan, Hamas does not prohibit women from working or from gaining an education. Many of Hamas's women members and supporters are professional doctors, lawyers, teachers and social workers. Hamas not only provides job training programs for women, but also programs that aid women to gain both a religious and university education.
According to Neem, women "feel well treated by Hamas institutions. Now these women are looking to us, the women in parliament, to change other things".
Support for Hamas from women took Israel, the US and many Western countries, as well as the former ruling party Fatah, by surprise. Fatah was slow to comprehend the impact of the grassroots work carried out by Hamas women. Instead, it took the women's vote for granted, assuming that secular women would vote for Fatah.
Whether Hamas will improve or restrict the rights of women is still unknown. However, in 1999, Hamas admitted for the first time that women were oppressed as women and that they had cause to struggle against discrimination and sexism.
Jamila Shanti, a philosophical professor at the Islamic University who headed the list of Hamas women candidates, told the Guardian that Hamas women needed to tackle discrimination. "Our first job is to correct this because this is not Islam", Shanti said. "We are going to show that women are not secondary, they are equal to men. Discrimination is not from Islam, it is from tradition. It may not be easy. Men may not agree".
Another female MP, Miriam Farhat, told reporters soon after her election that women would have to cover their heads. Yet Hamas's candidate for prime minister, Ismail Haniyyeh, has been quick to deny this, saying that Hamas will not force women to wear the hijab or veil, but will seek to educate and persuade them about the virtues of Islam and Islamic behaviour.
[Kim Bullimore is a member of the Socialist Alliance and lived in the occupied Palestinian territories in 2004, where she worked with the human-rights organisation International Women's Peace Service. <http://www.iwps.info>.]
From Green Left Weekly, March 8, 2006.
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